WASHINGTON -- A year ago, as the president was insisting to a dubious public that he had not had sexual relations with "that woman," even Clinton loyalists were predicting that he might not survive what seemed to be shocking revelations of recklessness and immorality.
Pundits were quick to dust off the incendiary "I-word." Politicians and journalists talked breathlessly of a presidential resignation and a Gore administration.
Today, after a yearlong saga that has yet to come to a close, the president, while indelibly scarred, is standing tall.
And Washington is scratching its head.
What happened? How did Clinton untie himself from the railroad tracks? And why did the public not only let him, but assist him?
"Historians looking back will be mightily puzzled by this," says Boston University historian and Lyndon Johnson biographer Robert Dallek. "What they will see is a lot of subterranean motives at work."
To be sure, Clinton, whose resilience and dedication to toughing it out are legendary, is somewhat responsible for how the events of the past year have unfolded.
But Dallek and other historians and political scientists believe the public, deeply cynical and disengaged from Washington, and the Republicans, whose outrage at the president far surpassed the public's, have also played key roles in writing the script.
Ends justify means
Some have pointed to the vigorous economy as the key to the president's survival and the public's strong support for him, a sort of "end justifies the means" argument.
"The Clinton ends -- the economy, jobs, income levels -- seem to justify whatever the personal means," says Roger Morris, the author of biographies of Clinton and Richard Nixon.
"People seem to be saying, 'He hasn't done anything that really hurts me.' "
Vanderbilt University presidential expert Erwin Hargrove says that, much like Clinton's renowned ability to "compartmentalize," the public makes a clear distinction between approval of a president's performance and personal admiration for him.
He says the public generally credits and sticks with the president when times are good.
"The only way to shake that is for the crimes to be more severe," Hargrove says. "The nature of the crime itself shaped this.
"If the charges had been more central to the president's work and more clearly public crimes, this would have been a different story."
For instance, Nixon's support stayed strong -- although not nearly as strong as the record-breaking job approval ratings Clinton has enjoyed in the past year -- during a deteriorating economy, and only began to crumble when the evidence of his Watergate transgressions became overwhelming.
But some believe that the pocketbook explanation for Clinton's enduring popularity is only one part of the puzzle.
Morris says the more decisive factor in Clinton's success is the cynicism and indifference of the public.
"There's been a revolution in the public," says Morris. "The disillusionment with the quality of politics and the political process is deeper than it's ever been. And Clinton is the beneficiary of it."
Morris, author of "Partners in Power: The Clintons and Their America," believes the public is so convinced that all of politics is corrupt that "it's not credible anymore to point fingers."
"When one party tries to claim the moral high ground, it rings hollow," he says. "The public has made a fundamental judgment that we're dealing here with a defective class of people."
In fact, he says, it's no wonder that deputy White House counsel Cheryl Mills made more of a splash on the Senate floor last week than the House "prosecutors" did the week before.
"The House managers are at a real disadvantage," says Morris. "They may be the only class of people less highly regarded than Washington lawyers."
Dallek, too, believes that the public's steadfast support of Clinton has been the key to his political survival. But he believes that support does not arise from cynicism as much as from the public's inherent centrism.
"The more I've thought about it, the more I'm convinced that what's operating here is what has operated through most of the country's history: a tradition of moderation, accommodation and consensus," says Dallek.
"People in this country are centrists. They don't like radical behavior. They see this whole impeachment process as radical."
In contrast, he says, Clinton has been able to strike chords that resonate with the political center, as he demonstrated with last week's State of the Union address.
Pollsters and political strategists believe that, in awarding Clinton an astoundingly high approval rating, the public is also expressing its frustration with the media and Republicans -- including independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr -- for their seeming obsession with scandal.
Some conservative Republicans acknowledge that they have pursued Clinton with such vigor because they believe he has demeaned the presidency and thumbed his nose at traditional cultural values.
"There's a cultural war in this country, and it has now entered our political process," conservative thinker Robert H. Bork, the former federal judge and failed Supreme Court justice nominee, said last week.
"Our political parties are lining up along the two sides in the culture war. Bill Clinton represents the values of the '60s rebels. The Republican Party represents more traditional values."
But in making the case against Clinton the hallmark of their "cultural war," Republicans seem to have miscalculated public sentiment, say Democrats.
"The Republicans have misplayed this at almost every juncture," says Democratic strategist Robert Shrum, a Clinton ally and occasional adviser. "For them, this is the last great cultural battle of the '60s. They couldn't believe someone who opposed the [Vietnam] war and hadn't served had become president.
"They thought they could impose their moral standards of judgment. They didn't understand that that's not why people are picking their leaders. People like Clinton's public values and priorities -- whether it's Social Security or day care or education standards."
Last week, Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson suggested that even he thought the conservatives may have miscalculated how the battle would play out, saying that Clinton had prevailed from a public relations standpoint and that it was time for Republicans to move on.
The GOP's attack on Clinton -- which seemed to coalesce with the House Judiciary Committee's partisan split in its vote to impeach Clinton -- also worked to unify congressional Democrats who, in the past, have not been particularly devoted to Clinton.
"The nature of the whole process strengthened the resolve of Democrats to stand with the president," says Shrum.
One Senate aide agrees, saying Democratic senators largely mirrored the public in their reaction to the events of the past year.
"First, they were in shock," the aide said. "Then disbelief. Then frustration at what appeared to be a witch hunt."
Indeed, some of the tougher tactics of Clinton's opponents -- and some moves that turned into public relations fiascoes, such as calling Monica Lewinsky's mother before the grand jury and having her emerge in tears -- helped garner sympathy for the president and ill will for his prosecutors.
And Clinton himself managed to keep the potentially fatal scandal at bay through legal maneuvers, a business-as-usual public persona and a crucial decision to stick to his story as much as possible and yield as little as possible.
Numerous objections by Clinton's lawyers dragged out Starr's investigation and added to the public's weariness of the inquiry.
Clinton, for his part, has said only as much as was absolutely necessary, never bowing to Republican demands that he make a full admission that he lied, never fulfilling his promise to the press that he would provide "more rather than less, sooner rather than later," never succumbing to calls that he resign for the good of the country.
Riding things out
"The one abiding principle in Clinton's career is to ride these things out," says Morris, adding that the president is joined in his tenacity by first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. "They are not given to giving up."
While Republicans repeatedly said that a full mea culpa would have ended the scandal early on, many disagree, believing that, on the contrary, such an admission would have provided Clinton's opponents with a stronger case for ousting him.
"Any admission of the kind the Republicans outlined would not have ended this," says Shrum. "It would have only invited them to do more."
Guided by polls from the very first day the Lewinsky story broke -- when he asked his former adviser Dick Morris to see how the public would react to his acknowledgment of a sexual relationship with the young White House intern -- and guided, too, by the existence of irrefutable evidence, Clinton has modulated his actions during the past year.
He has admitted wrongdoing when there was no other alternative. He has simply ignored the white elephant of a crisis, as he did in giving last week's State of the Union address, when it has become clear that the scandal-fatigued public has had enough of it.
"Clinton's genius," says biographer Roger Morris, "is to ride those waves, to keep his finger to the wind and make adjustments."
Pub Date: 1/24/99